Michael Lacey and his business partner, Jim Larkin, acquired the New Times building at 1201 Jefferson Street in 1985. They rescued the historical former Booker T. Washington Elementary School from developers who wanted to tear it down.
Lacey's roomy office in the editorial section of the sprawling structure has wood floors, tall ceilings, and lots of natural light from large windows. The décor has changed over time, but one constant has been stacks of newspapers surrounding his desk. The stacks multiplied as the company he co-founded in 1970 bought more alternative weeklies. The total is now 13, including New York's Village Voice, Denver's Westword, the LA Weekly, the Dallas Observer, and Miami New Times — copies of which fill wire newspaper racks in his space.
Lacey currently is clearing out following the recent announced sale of Village Voice Media to senior management.
After 42 years, the legendary Arizona editor is calling it quits.
Village Voice Media announced its intention to sell the newspapers, their websites, and the company's national-advertising arm to the new Voice Media Group, headquartered in Denver.
The lucrative and controversial online classified ad site Backpage.com is not part of the deal, which will become final in late December.
Backpage.com will go its own way, with Lacey, 64, and Larkin, 63, at the helm. Lacey says the two no longer have any control of the newspapers they are selling.
Scott Tobias, longtime chief operating officer of Village Voice Media, will be chief executive officer of Voice Media Group. Christine Brennan, VVM's executive managing editor for 19 years, will become executive editor of VMG. And Jeff Mars, vice president of financial operations at VVM, will be the new company's chief financial officer.
"I'd trust them with my children," Lacey says of the management team.
In fact, he feels like that's almost what he did.
Putting New Times and the other papers in the hands of trusted colleagues, Lacey says, means that his and Larkin's tradition of quality journalism will continue.
The company was born in a time of change in the United States, when stodgy cultural values were under challenge by a powerful new generation of young people. The state's main source of news and editorial opinion came from the monolithic and highly conservative Arizona Republic, which viewed student demonstrators as radicals.
In 1970, following the killings of four Kent State University students by Ohio National Guardsmen, Lacey — an Arizona State University dropout from New Jersey — was among those who helped persuade school administrators to lower the campus flag to half-staff. The experience sparked the idea of starting a newspaper that would allow Valley residents to read about what was really going on in politics, music, and culture. The early founders included Lacey, Frank Fiore, Karen Lofgren, Bruce Stasium, Nick Stupey, Gayle Pyfrom, and Hal Smith. Larkin, attracted by the paper's viewpoints, later joined the group.
The paper rented space in Tempe before relocating to downtown Phoenix, first at the Westward Ho Hotel, then at the Hotel San Carlos, then at the Arizona Title Building, and finally at the former school for African-American students.
The several hundred journalism awards won by the papers' writers just in the past decade is testament to the culture the company fostered, Lacey says.
"We put together an approach to journalism and to telling stories that attracted dedicated and serious writers," he says.
Lacey led by example, winning numerous awards for penning poignant tales about social problems (such as "A Rock and a Hard Place," December 19, 1990) or doing investigative journalism. He often generated ideas for articles and projects that earned national recognition. For instance, he won the 2011 Clarion Award from the Association for Women in Communications for his story about a diabetic woman who died in jail custody ("What's Mom Worth?" December 9, 2010), and he led a VVM series on immigration called "Amongst Us," which won the the 2011 James Aronson Award for Social Justice Journalism.
Lacey and Larking even found themselves arrested because of journalism in late 2007, following a shameful and outrageous plot by Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio and then-County Attorney Andrew Thomas' office to destroy New Times ("Who's Sorry Now?" October 25, 2007).
On the business side, Backpage.com. became a huge financial success for VVM. When Craigslist stopped taking adult escort ads a few years ago, a vast number of its clients migrated to Backpage.
But with the success came criticism from religious organizations and a cadre of state attorneys general for, these groups claimed, facilitating underage prostitution. The criticism was bolstered by lies and bogus statistics, but it resulted in lost ad revenue and picket-waving demonstrators at some VVM publications.
A squadron of lawyers had to be hired to deal with Backpage problems in the past couple of years, and Lacey says he and Larkin had to dedicate an inordinate amount of time to issues surrounding the site.
"The equation for us became . . . this is what we're doing all the time," he says. "This was a management issue."
Lacey says he and Larkin decided to sell their newspaper holdings to the new company so that it could devote full energy to the business of journalism. Financial information related to the deal hasn't been divulged.
Lacey likens his and Larkin's Backpage battles to ones fought by late literary publisher Barney Rosset, "who spent his entire life fighting for the right to publicize adult content." Lacey stresses that the ads on Backpage are protected by the First Amendment.
To Backpage's detractors, he says, "We'll see you in the courthouse."
New Times and the other newspapers in the chain still will pursue quality journalism, just as they always have, under the new company, Tobias stresses.
"I've worked with Jim and Mike for almost 20 years," says Tobias, who started with the company in 1993. "The bars they've set will be the bars we'll continue to set — and try to raise."
Tobias notes that the papers are "iconic brands with long ties to their communities. We look forward to many, many more years of representing everything there is to do in these communities, and of producing award-winning journalism."